With violence gripping Iraq, environmentalists are struggling to draw attention to damage caused during last year's U.S.-led invasion, the 1991 Gulf War and waste discharged by industry struggling with years of sanctions.
A pilot scheme starting in the next month will test samples from five of the more than 300 locations in Iraq considered to be contaminated by various pollutants, including a sulphur mine and a seed store containing toxic fungicide.
"My country is faced with a wide range of pressing issues that must be addressed if the Iraqi people are to enjoy a stable, healthy and prosperous future," Environment Minister Mishkat Moumin said in a statement released by the United Nations Environment Program's headquarters in Nairobi.
Underlining the threat to government personnel in Iraq, militants made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Moumin in a bomb attack last month.
UNEP is coordinating the project in cooperation with the Iraqi government as part of a wider $4.7-million scheme funded by donors to support the country's environment ministry.
Environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists have linked depleted uranium used in U.S. and British munitions to higher rates of cancer and birth defects in Iraq following the 1991 war, although the study is not focusing on this issue.
In a separate plan, UNEP has requested $2.5 million from donors to assess sites that scientists suspect are polluted by depleted uranium, which is so dense it can pierce tank armor.
The Pentagon says it has not found any evidence that the metal causes long-term health problems.
Iraqi scientists, who have received training from UNEP, will share samples with counterparts from UNEP's Post Conflict Assessment Unit in Geneva.
"This is part of our long-term aim of creating a fully independent Iraqi team of first class environmental assessors," said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer in the statement.
The initial sites to be assessed include a pipeline where sabotage attacks by guerrillas opposed to the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi have caused discharges of oil.
Scientists also plan to visit the Al-Mishraq Sulphur State Company to assess pollution from sulphur fires, and the Midland Al-Doura Refinery Stores to investigate spills of more than 5,000 tons of chemicals, including tetraethyl lead.
Tests are also planned at the Al-Suwaira Seed Store, where seeds have been coated with methyl mercury fungicide, a particularly toxic form of the liquid metal that can damage the human nervous system.
UNEP said about 50 tons of contaminated seeds were stolen during last year's U.S.-led invasion, raising the risk of contaminating food supplies such as bread.
Scientists also plan to visit a scrap metal site to assess the risk of pollution from chemicals such as halons, asbestos and engine oils from destroyed tanks and other vehicles.